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Culture Imitates Nature (I Hope)

I wish so many people didn't hate the phrase "paradigm shift," because it really does the job of conveying one highly specific thought: that an old model of how things work is receding at the approach of a new and more powerful model (in the words of Ken Wilber, one that "subsumes and transcends" the old).

I'm a hard-core paradigm shifter. As I keep telling anyone who will listen, this is a liminal moment, when the modernist illusion that everything worth knowing can be weighed, measured and standardized is giving way to the infinitely richer view of the world derived from stories, rather than statistics. (See this essay in the inaugural issue of The Arts Politic, for instance.) It will be for succeeding generations to say whether those who see things as I do were deluded or prescient. For the moment, I'm going with my hopes.

After all, time is on my side. Whatever endures holds promise. As Janine Benyus says of a Chambered Nautilus, in this PopCast on "biomimicry," borrowing engineering ideas from nature, "Three-point-eight billion years is a long time to tinker with shape." She points out that water flows in the same logarithmic spiral that forms the shell, for instance, making it an energy-saving shape for fans and turbines.

When it comes to ambulatory life-forms, the developmental timeline is shorter, but the same principle pertains: it is a good idea for human beings to pay attention to systems and solutions that have evolved over time in natural contexts, because something very like them may work just as well in cultural contexts.

That has a sensible ring to it, doesn't it? Yet we are just now emerging from an era so contaminated with technological hubris that the opposite has generally been deemed true: nature is messy and inefficient, so it's much better to model our interventions on machines, where standardization and uniformity prevail—and then let human beings, that infinitely obliging species, adapt to the result. Janine Benyus's fascinating talk focuses on solutions to manufacturing and conservation problems that use shape and texture and process derived from nature to create light, flexible, strong innovations instead of our typical expensively manufactured modern-era counterparts.

The underlying ideas apply to society as well. If permaculturists are learning from nature to make agriculture more like natural growing environments, with different species thriving in each other's ambit—chickens amidst the cows, shrubs in the shadows of trees with vines twining up their trunks, root vegetables side-by-side with herbs—what can we learn about culture?

I have a few ideas that pertain to that sector of the cultural landscape we call "the arts," although I think they are easily transferable to medicine, finance, education and other realms. What do you think?

Reciprocity: Nature is full of examples of animals engaged in an economy of favors in which basic fairness keeps things moving. Here's another great PopCast from primatologist Frans de Waal that illustrates with cucumbers and grapes what we may have failed to learn from high finance. In the arts world, community artists and activists are forever being asked to support mainstream organizations in their quest for visibility and funding, but reciprocal support is seldom offered. In fact, arts advocacy groups whose CEOs make six-figure salaries or who get stimulus funds to retain jobs in their own ranks routinely ask underpaid artists to write, speak or otherwise share their work for free. In primate groups, everyone who contributes food gets fed. If we were as smart as de Waal's monkeys, we'd stop saying yes without reciprocity.

Strong defending the weak: In the primate world, strong leaders maintain their dominance in part by standing up for the weak, collecting insurance in the form of gratitude. Nature also makes helpless babies cute, so their lovableness armors them by aligning them with protectors. In the arts world, something comparable almost never happens. Somewhere, there must an example of the white head of a major opera or ballet company or museum bravely speaking truth on behalf of struggling organizations in communities of color, for instance, but I haven't found it yet.

Permaculture and ecology: Permaculture also shows us how varied and often weaker species thrive in the spaces created by big trees, a strategy of layering that sustains an entire ecosystem. It seems to me the major cultural institutions could earn the loyalty they desire by providing a great many nooks and crannies for a real diversity of voices and visions to find and keep their own places in the arts ecology. Like big trees in the forest garden, they would hold and feed the soil that sustains the entire system, instead of soaking up all the nutrients in solitary splendor. In a functioning forest ecology, every species has its unique role, but all are needed to sustain the whole in health and well-being. How would the arts ecology have to change if this were recognized?

Self-cleaning mechanisms: Nature makes the surfaces of many leaves smooth, creating efficient self-cleaning. When rain comes, dirt slides right off. I'd like to see more smooth surfaces in the arts world, with rich institutions taking the lead in green practices, for instance, immunizing themselves from the taint of waste that adheres to both the for-profit and non-profit creative industries. I'd like to see the economics of these rich institutions made much more transparent, rinsing away the self-dealing and scandal that seem endemic. How would these enterprises have to change so that dirt would no longer stick?

Self-organizing, flexible systems: The family, the tribe, the council of more-or-less equals, where differences in authority are earned by experience—these are self-organizing, flexible systems of collaboration and mutual support, fairly consistent across both nature and culture. (In culture, though, we can choose families not bound by blood.) Social psychologists tell us that most people have a finite capacity for relationship: there are only so many faces we can know and care about as individuals before they blur into a crowd. So the logical mode of organizing for any large system is a sort of federation of families or tribes, where the members of each unit are free to work out their relationships in the ways that seem best to them, so long as they engage in an adequate level of reciprocity with other units, like species in a forest garden.

In contrast, I am always amazed at how limited and weak the dominant forms of organizational relationship are in the red-carpet arts world: you can be a "friend of," a subscriber, a volunteer or docent or the recipient of some special symbolic status conferred by the size of your donation. Instead of a tribe or federation, the model is a factory: we're all widgets, each set to perform our discrete function until we wear out.

Janine Benyus says that in the natural world, success is keeping your offspring alive generations after your own demise. Since there's no way to intervene directly in a future that outlives us, all we can do is create the conditions conducive to survival. I have written and spoken often about the necessity of art, given that imaginative empathy is the secret of human survival. But how should art's ecology be organized to promote this type of success? It seems to me that a great deal more recognition and reciprocity are needed if culture is to learn from nature the lessons that science and technology are beginning to learn, to their benefit and ours.

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Hi Arlene

I absolutely adore the phrase 'paradigm shift' because it conveys so many nuances...from a little stir to binaries. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay, especially the flux between Nature and Order.

I think Desmond Morris and George Orwell expanded on these themes, one more overtly than the other.


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Thank you, Farzana

Maybe I've overestimated the opposition to this useful phrase! I'm so glad you enjoyed the essay.

all best,